WASHINGTON – At 15, high school sophomore Coloradas Mangas knows all too much about suicide.
He’s recently had several friends who took their own lives, and he survived a suicide attempt himself.
Coloradas, a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, lives on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, where there have been five youth suicides since the start of the school year. All were his friends.
Coloradas went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to tell lawmakers about the urgent problem of suicide among Native Americans. Tribal suicide rates are 70 percent higher than for the general population, and the youth suicide rate is even higher. On some reservations youth suicide rates are 10 times the national average.
“Things go wrong that they can’t change,” Coloradas said, trying to explain the high rate of suicide in his community. “They don’t get shown the love they need. They say, ‘You don’t love me when I was here. Now you love me when I’m not here.’ ”
On the Mescalero reservation, located in south-central New Mexico more than 200 miles south of Albuquerque, a single mental health clinic serves a tribe of more than 4,500 people. The closest 24-hour hotline is in Albuquerque.
Calls for help are usually answered by tribal police or law enforcement officers from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Jeremiah Simmons, coordinator of Honor Your Life, a teen outreach program in Mescalero, N.M. While praising police, Simmons said their highly visible presence often results in what he called “criminalization” of suicidal thoughts – making teens reluctant to reach out.
“I am from a new generation of young men and women who believe in breaking the silence and seeking help,” Coloradas testified. “I come from a people whose pride runs deep, but I also understand that sometimes pride can keep us from asking for help.”
He urged the panel to boost staff at the reservation’s mental health clinic and create a youth shelter where teens can go “when the home life becomes very toxic.”
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, called the rate of youth suicide in Indian Country a crisis.
“It is an ongoing tragedy, made more so by the fact that it is so preventable,” Dorgan said. “Native Americans need more mental health providers and resources, and if they had them, many of these deaths could be prevented.”
Dorgan said the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, approved as the part of the health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama, would authorize a comprehensive youth suicide prevention effort on Indian reservations. The bill also boosts mental health resources throughout Indian Country.
“We are doing everything we can to recognize (the suicide problem) and put a spotlight on it and understand how to address it, in order to save the lives of young people,” Dorgan said.